What happens when you’re on the cusp of winning your maiden Grand Tour, but, with a week to go, can’t tell your enemies from your friends?, wonders Anthony Tan.
I have been writing about professional road cycling for 23 years, watching for another decade more. In that time I’ve seen an awful lot, good and bad, but I can’t remember a team ever winning all three Grand Tours in one season, let alone with three different riders.
That’s because it’s never been done before.
Until the final week of the 78th edition of La Vuelta a España, it was set to become the most unremarkable (read: boring) of the Grand Tour triumvirate for Season 2023.
Jumbo-Visma was proving to be the stage race team of the year. Their methods clinical, their riders uncompromisingly loyal in prosecuting management’s orders, their raison d’être: to win as a team. Ineos Grenadiers was once that team, particularly when it was known as Team Sky, but the Dutch-registered outfit helmed by general manager Richard Plugge stole the Ineos textbook, studied it, then rewrote it to make it better.
Even UAE Team Emirates, with all that largesse from the oil-rich Arab sheikhs and supposedly the world’s best stage racer in Tadej Pogacar, has proven fallible to their collective might.
The 2020-21 Tour de France champion appeared set to dominate for much of this decade, yet the Slovenian was no match for the aggregate fortitude of Jonas Vingegaard and his henchmen the past two Tours. Notwithstanding Pog’s broken wrist two months out from the start in Bilbao, this year he wouldn’t have won anyway. He’s still that impetuous kid in the candy shop, trying to eat everything but only giving himself a tummy ache because he stuffed too many Killer Pythons down his gob then sank a can of Fanta to try and ease the cramps, making matters worse.
As for Remco Evenepoel, whose primary focus was the Giro d’Italia before he got COVID midway through (while in the race lead), exiting stage left then west to Barcelona to defend his Vuelta crown of yesteryear, like Pogacar, he still has much to learn. Historically, his Soudal-Quick Step coterie has never been terribly interested in Grand Tours, so from that perspective they’re learning on the go, but such is Remco’s talent and appetite for winning, team boss Patrick Lefevere has been forced to change to accommodate the Merckx-esque Belgian superstar.
In established leaders Vingegaard and Primoz Roglic, who will be 27 and 34 by year’s end, Jumbo-Visma has the new(ish) pup and the old(ish) dog. Slightly later-than-usual graduates to the WorldTour (at 22 and 26 years old, respectively), both have much more to give. The desire and belief is still there, and, like so many successful athletes, they’re addicted to winning – which leads us nicely to what happened in those final six days at La Vuelta…
He wasn’t supposed to hold on so long…
The final Grand Tour was billed as a duel between Evenepoel and either Vingegaard and Roglic. For the latter two, initially at least, it was deemed that strongest man leads and the road would decide who’d that be. That said, given Vingegaard had won the Tour only a month before the August 26 start, only Roglic, triumphant at the Giro in May, had prepared properly.
Thanks to a successful break, when Jumbo’s super climbing domestique Sepp Kuss won the mountain stage to the Astrophysical Observatory of Javalambre on Stage 6, then took the race lead two days later, despite a three-minute buffer to the group of favourites, he wasn’t expected to keep it. After all, he was the only member of his team to have already ridden both the Giro and Tour, and besides, he was there to support Jonas or Primoz.
But he did keep it. When Evenepoel faltered on Stage 13 to the Col du Tourmalet, an absolute beast of a day, he still kept it by 1’37 and 1’44 from Roglic and Vingegaard, now second and third overall. And when his own team-mates seemingly tried to wrest the maillot rojo from him – on consecutive days, no less! – first by Vingegaard and then Roglic on the Angliru, Spain’s most infamous cycling climb – guess what?
He still kept it!
Everyone had underestimated this Gremlin-faced kid from Durango, Colorado – himself included.
“This is like a fairytale. With Primoz winning in Italy and Jonas winning in France earlier this year, I wanted to be part of this team chasing the overall victory in the Vuelta,” said Kuss at the finish in Madrid. “Standing here as the overall winner is something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams.”
Neither could Vingegaard and Roglic, or any of the top brass at Jumbo-Visma either, for that matter.
An unknown quantity, but the real deal
You don’t prepare a domestique to win a Grand Tour, but at the same time, you don’t prepare a domestique for failure. Which, indirectly, management at Jumbo-Visma was doing – until a social media volcano erupted in Kuss’ favour, spewing ashes of vitriol elswhere, and with #gckuss trending among fans and the commentariat. The American said throughout he didn’t want the Vuelta ‘gifted’ to him – however he also did not say he wanted it stolen from him.
To those who castigated Roglic for saying “I had my own personal thoughts” in the team meeting after the seventeenth stage to the Angliru, I think it’s fine. Normal, even.
Why? Because until four days from Madrid, obvious as it sounds, team management did not make it clear he and Vingegaard should be protecting Kuss to the point he falls out of contention.
As strong as he was throughout, Kuss was an unknown quantity: In six years on the World Tour he had not won a stage race, nor had he carried the burden of leadership at a Grand Tour. Furthermore, this is a team where riders are encouraged to voice their opinion, and neither Roglic or Vingegaard are known for being disloyal.
Nonetheless, that belated workshop of ideas Jumbo-Visma should have had a week and a half earlier – when Kuss held his own in the Stage 10 time trial and was not intent on simply letting go – worked a treat. Internal order was restored on the final two mountain legs. Kuss would get his reward. He would win the Vuelta by 17 seconds and 1’08 over Vingegaard and Roglic.
OK. So what now?
On the penultimate day, when asked what it’s like to have ridden three Grand Tours in one season, he said something a little cheeky: “Each of these races are very different from the others, and just seeing the differences in each of them, I guess it’s easy to say you get used to it, but there will always be surprises along the way.”
Will Kuss, who has one year left on his contract, be doubly faithful when he reprises his usual lieutenant role, or does the 29-year-old want – or shall he seek – more opportunities as a GC leader? (“I was getting stronger and more confident every day. When you add that to the team’s strength, you can take on the whole world,” he said in Madrid. “I have grown wings.”)
Will the brief period of internecine rivalry and subsequent social media revolt have a lasting impact on the Jumbo-Visma’s likeability? (Cycling fans never like a team that wins too much or too often.) Or, more importantly, in the context of Jumbo leaving cycling post-2024, will their search for a new title sponsor be affected by what happened in Spain? If the team were to win all three Grand Tours again – an entirely plausible proposition – what impact would this have on the sport?
Questions abound. As one writer said pithily, “After all, professional cycling is a beautiful and preposterous sport.”